Don’t Call It A Comeback: Getting Back On The Tour, Take 1

For this series, I’m going to try something a little different: I’m going to leave the deck strategy in the next article and instead get right to the report. Once I’ve gone through all the rounds, then I’ll post a strategy article specifically for Mirari’s Wake – a suddenly very important deck. My feeling is that for a deck that’s as complicated as this one, if we get the experience under your belt now (at least vicariously), the strategy article for the deck will make that much more sense and we’ll be able to get down to the nitty gritty a lot faster.

When I left”pro” Magic last season, I was convinced that this time it was for good. I was working on building a career position in a very crowded IT market, my wife and I had recently had our first child, and fitting the kind of time that professional Magic demands just didn’t seem possible.

For those that have followed my Magic career over the years, you probably know that I actually quit once before, shortly after getting married in 1999. I managed to stay away for about a year, but then The National Collector made me an offer I couldn’t refuse, Mindripper.com was reborn with me at the helm, and I was back to playing Magic full-time. That comeback went pretty well, ending in almost a season and a half of consecutive money finishes on the tour, three Grand Prix Top 8s, and a Pro Tour championship trophy with the help of Gary Wise and Mike Turian.

Fast-forward to the present, and circumstances seem to have changed for me yet again. While I was at Brainburst, I never really felt appreciated for what I felt I was accomplishing, and I think it’s safe to say that I was never really very happy there for a variety of reasons. I don’t want to get into things any more than that, but I think it’s enough to set the stage. By contrast, I’m very happy with my new home here at StarCityGames.com, and I’m also enjoying the drastically reduced schedule of being a writer again rather than a managing editor.

Combine that with a government job that only requires me to show up Monday through Thursday (I get to work four ten-hour shifts) and suddenly I have a schedule that seems to be much more conducive to playing Magic again. The final decider came when Wizards announced the revamped Masters series. As someone who tested extensively for each Masters event and got knocked out first round three times in a row, I’m a big fan of hearing that it’s now long-term consistency that will be rewarded, rather than single-elimination events. I’m also very impressed with the smooth curve of the payouts, a marked change from the normal top-heavy pay structures Wizards tends to favor. The message is clear – the best players over time can expect a nice bonus at the end of the year.

And you know what? I wouldn’t mind getting in on that – so it’s time to get qualified!

First up is U.S. Regionals and its invites to U.S. Nationals. For this event, I tested mostly on my own, using a combination of Magic Online and Apprentice. I also spent a bunch of time swapping email with Frank Gilson, Zvi, Bryce Currence, and Seth Burn. Bryce and I first met Seth back in ’98 at U.S. Nationals, where Seth was about to unleash”Stupid Green Deck” onto the scene. I saw him building the deck in the seat next to me and I was caught up on the spot. It’s been a while since I worked with either of these guys, so it was great fun and with more than a little nostalgia to begin my comeback with these guys – not to mention former PCL teammate Frank Gilson!

After weeks of vigorous testing, the list I settled on was as follows:

5 Island

3 Lonely Sandbar

3 Plains

3 Forest

4 Krosan Verge

3 Brushland

4 Skycloud Expanse

1 Flooded Strand

3 Exalted Angel

4 Wrath of God

4 Renewed Faith

3 Counterspell

3 Memory Lapse

3 Cunning Wish

3 Compulsion

4 Deep Analysis

3 Moment’s Peace

2 Mirari

2 Mirari’s Wake


2 Seedtime

1 Compulsion

1 Exalted Angel

1 Opportunity

2 Chastise

1 Unsummon

1 Reprisal

1 Ray of Revelation

1 Ray of Distortion

1 Elephant Ambush

1 Circular Logic

1 Krosan Reclamation

1 Moment’s Peace

Because there are readers out there who aren’t necessarily familiar with how this particular combo deck”goes off,” I’ll simplify the process as follows: Use Mirari and Wish to set up a loop where, after you’ve used one Wish, you can use any further Wish with Mirari to get another Wish plus an extra card. In essence, once Wish is out of the game, you can use Mirari to”fork” new Wishes to get old Wishes and a new card each time. The combo is put together by using lots of card drawing, especially the Wake+Compulsion combo. In the meantime, while you set all that up, the deck plays as a more traditional Blue/White control deck. But at any given time, once you have enough mana, it’s a control deck that threatens to bust out all over the table and do really gross things to your opponents!

For reference, the main kill tends to come from Elephant Ambush +Mirari plus”infinite” Wishes, allowing you to make as many elephant tokens each turn as you have mana for. Once you have the Wish loop going, you can also kill them by decking them with Opportunity/Krosan Reclamation or Life Gain + Krosan Reclamation… But that’s rarely needed. There are also Exalted Angels, of course, since they seem to have become a staple in this archetype over the last few weeks.

For this series, I’m going to try something a little different: I’m going to leave the deck strategy at just that brief bit already mentioned and instead get right to the report. Once I’ve gone through all the rounds, then I’ll post a strategy article specifically for this suddenly very important deck. That’s a little backwards, as normally people would expect the report to come last, but I’m going to experiment this time around. My feeling is that for a deck that’s as complicated as this one, if we get the experience under your belt now (at least vicariously), the strategy article for the deck will make that much more sense and we’ll be able to get down to the nitty gritty a lot faster.

Like I said, it’s an experiment, so we’ll see how it goes!

This year I find myself in the Northern California Regionals for the first time. The event was run by Match Play and had over five hundred players. The room was too small, it was stiflingly hot, there was no room to move, and the stink was phenomenal.

It’s good to be back!

Round 1: Glenn Ellingson – R/G Beats

Glenn is a very pleasant fellow who had the unfortunate draw of turn 1 R/G filter land, turn 2 Llanowar Elves, burn for one. Worse for him (and also unknown to him until several turns later in the game), I’m packing the kind of draw that makes this deck so unfair. Turn 1 Verge, turn 2 cycle for two life, turn 3 use the Verge, turn 4 Wrath and cycle an extra land, turn 5 Wake+Fog, turn 6 Compulsion + Fog, turn 7 Mirari and he’s conceded. My hand at this point is a card drawer and two Wishes, and he would have been dead very shortly anyway. Not a bad start to the day!

Game 2 Glenn mulligans all the way down to four cards, and takes it with the kind of grace that I wish I could muster, at least on occasion. As a reward, he manages to make this into a hell of a game. My own hand was fairly mediocre, but had land of all the right colors as well as a Wrath – a keeper when facing a triple-mulliganed opponent, where you don’t want to take too many chances. He leads with turn 1 Basking Rootwalla and the lizard just starts going to town on me, taking my life in three-bite chunks. The ‘Walla is shortly joined by a Grim Lavamancer while I draw into mostly land but no second white for the Wrath or Angel I’m really really wanting to play any time now.

The situation deteriorates but I’m managing to keep anything new from joining the rally on his side of the table. A Wrath clears the Lizard/Lavamancer duo, but a new Lavamancer shows up and things are looking dire. A few turns later clutch time arrives, as I’m just too low on life (I’m at six) to make it through another turn or two as things are. After a very long turn in which I have to figure out all the various ways I can die based on which plan I go with, the best angle seems to be going with a Wish for Unsummon, bounce the Lavamancer, and use my last three to play the Gray Ogre side of an Exalted Angel.

Puzzles like this are exactly why this deck is not for the uninitiated! There are a couple options here but this one seems best, so I have to hope he doesn’t draw a Firebolt or Volcanic Hammer (or a Violent Eruption, which will just kill me outright). He shoots me with his Lavamancer in response, picks it up, draws…

And plays Lavamancer, and then a Hammer to my Angel! We both get a good laugh out of just how hard his little deck is fighting back from its triple-mulligan, and it’s my turn to go to the top of the deck for an answer, facing a Lavamancer with only four life and no cards in hand. I draw…

Renewed Faith! I go up to ten, a Wrath finishes his Lavamancer, and a turn or two later I’m able to get the better side of Angel into play. A close and exciting match. I’m certainly awake now!

Round 2: Rusty Smith – Goblins

In a field this diverse, one of the things I tend to do is try and write off a couple archetypes so that I can make room in my sideboard for the decks I feel I’m more likely to actually face, particularly as the rounds advance and I’m (hopefully!) in the winners’ brackets. For the current event, the #1 deck this applied to was Goblins, as my beloved Teroh’s Faithfuls were given their walking papers in favor of more anti-U/G and R/G cards like Reprisal and Unsummon. I didn’t expect many Goblins to show up this weekend, and the ones that did show up would, hopefully, be in a lower bracket after a few rounds.

Like any other metagame guess, it’s a gamble – and it came back to haunt me this round. Rusty is bringing the exact deck I had written off, and wins the die roll to boot. His minions bring it fast and furious, and game 1 is over before I get a sixth land into play. Disgruntled but resolute, I head to my board.

At which point, some things start looking up…

First, he looks at the guy next to me and says,”Wow, that was so fast I don’t even know what this guy is playing!” Followed by,”All I saw was a Verge, Forest, Plains, Memory Lapse and Island – he could be playing anything!” The guy sitting next to me gives my opponent a funny look but doesn’t say anything, and my opponent just smiles and starts shuffling, saying he doesn’t know what to board since he doesn’t know what deck I’m playing. Later, he tells me that he hasn’t played much Constructed in a while, and Wake isn’t exactly the most common deck, so it’s understandable. From my side, I certainly don’t mind seeing his deck gain nothing extra for game 2.

I bring in some Chastises, the fourth Fog, the fourth Angel, and a Reprisal, trying my best to cobble something together from the available tools to slow his assault while somehow getting my slow control deck up and running in time without the aid of a crowd of Faithfuls.

Game 2, I am able to use early cycling and countermagic to keep him (mostly) under control, but the first two goblins are pecking me down relentlessly while I try to get my mana developed as quickly as possible.

A Chastise stops an otherwise-lethal Relentless Charge, but he is able to sac the target to give another Goblin +1/+1, which prevents me from gaining some badly-needed life. However, he’s also clearly just dumping all the burn he has right at my face as soon as he draws it. That gives at least some hope, as I’m trying very hard to set up an Angel and get things back under control. His next turn shows a flashback of the Charge, which I’m able to Reprisal, but I’m a turn or two away from death. I untap and cast an Angel face-up, but she’s out there on her own. It’s her against the two goblin dorks, and there’s nothing in my hand to protect her (or myself, being at three life!). My opponent swings with both, which causes me to wince, and I drop to two with Angel’s effect on the stack. I breathe a little more easily (well, a lot more easily, actually) when he dumps his dead goblin into the ‘yard and says”go.” The Angel quickly puts things away.

Game 3 is more of the same, but he only gets me down to five this time rather than two. As with the prior game, he’s just dumping all the burn at my face, which this time allows me to play a face-down Angel and get away with it! Desperate times, desperate measures! He also made a potentially game-losing mistake by playing his creatures in the wrong order – I clearly would need to Wrath to stay alive, something he mentioned out loud, and yet he cast his Lavamancer the turn before the Wrath instead of an irrelevant beater. I can understand wanting to keep up the pressure and force the Wrath, but he could have done that with the beater and followed up the Wrath with a very threatening Lavamancer. Had he done this and kept back a little burn for Angel, I suspect he would have won easily.

I take the lucky win for what it’s worth and remind myself that I’m not likely to get any gifts like this from here on out.

Round 3: Scott Demmon – U/G

While U/G isn’t an easy match, it’s definitely favorable, which is one of the main reasons I decided to go with Wake for this event. That said, it’s always an intimidating deck to face, and it’s hard not to feel powerless when U/G gets one of its several God draws. That’s exactly what happens game 1, as Scott plays turn 1 Lizard, turn 2 Mongrel, turn 3 Mongrel + Circular Logic, and turn 4 Arrogant Wurm with an open blue. Turns out he had a second Logic, but I was already dead and it was just overkill.

Scott’s a very friendly opponent, and God knows I’ve played enough U/G to do the same thing to other opponents, so there’s not much to be done but shrug and head for the board and some waiting Chastises.

In game 2, I use”Plan A” against U/G, which is to see how many cards he brings in and decide if he’s going with the Ray/Spec plan. I suspect he is, and I promptly yank out all my Compulsions and Wakes to bring in two Chastises, a Reprisal, a Moment’s Peace, and the fourth Angel. This game starts out badly as well, with my amiable opponent casting turn 1 Careful Study and promptly dropping a pair of Rootwallas into play. I wince again, but there’s nothing to be done about it but play my best.

This is something I’ve really been working on in recently, and I think I’m finally starting to make some progress: When I was playing more regularly in past seasons, I noticed a pattern that when my opponent got”very lucky,” I tended to start this incessant internal bitching. That’s bad enough as is, but it turns out that once this starts I tend to start playing a whole lot worse, missing optimal plays and sometimes just making flat-out blunders. If at all possible, I now try to focus all that energy on beating my opponent regardless of his draws, and I think it may have made the difference this game.

My opponent is a bit slow getting Green, but he is able to fire off a Quiet Speculation for two Deep Analysis and a Ray of Revelation, and the resulting card drawing gets him right back into the swing of things. But I’m in this game, too, and my deck is doing what it’s designed to do as well. This ends up being an extremely complicated game, so rather than go with the play-by-play I’m going to take a step back and go with a more generalized and higher-level description.

In essence, what happened was that my opponent had either sideboarded into (or drawn) into a much more controlling hand, causing him to spend many of his turns with mana untapped and often doing everything he could to nurse his threats against things like Wrath of God. This is good strategy, and I can’t say enough about how well Scott played in this match… But the problem is that this left me enough time to set things up to be much more favorable for me than him. Given time, my deck is the more pure control deck and I have more countermagic with more things that need to be countered. Things swing back and forth for about twenty minutes, but I’m eventually able to put him away in an exhaustion war that leaves me with Mirari+Wish once the smoke has cleared. Out of gas and a bit low on time, he scoops and we move to game three.

I notice him quickly swap two cards, and my guess is that he’s dropped his Rays back into the board – a reasonable move, since game 2 went quite long and his Rays didn’t do anything but stare at him from the graveyard. I do my best to nonchalantly grab my Wakes and a couple of Compulsions and drop them back into the deck, rebalancing the deck’s pieces by bringing some of the other”four-ofs” to”three-ofs” to make room. I also switch the Unsummon to the main and move the Reprisal to Wish-target duty, as Unsummon is the better card for gaining that lost turn from going second. (Going first, especially if you draw a Verge, Unsummon seems less needed except as a Wish target.)

Game 3 starts out fast and furious, with the turn 2 Aquamoeba/turn 3 Arrogant Wurm play that can be dumped out risk-free playing first, since I can’t Wrath for another turn. He Specs on turn 4 for Analysis/Roar/Roar and has Logic up for my Wrath. Things are getting dire – but I do have a two Wraths and this one resolves, so things aren’t over yet. His Analysis kick-starts things back into high gear on his side, but the turn gives me time to use my own Analysis. The main problem with this game is that I get stuck at four land for several turns, but I have a handful of things that really need casting right now. This ends up being fatal a few turns later, as I get too low on life with just four land in play and a newly-cast Sandbar.

He brawls with a Mongrel and Wurm token, and I make my only major mistake of the day that I know of: Casting Wish in his attack phase in order to go get the Unsummon for the Wurm token. Of course, I’ve boarded the Unsummon back into the main and it’s Reprisal that’s on Wish-duty, not Unsummon. That’s a lot worse when you only have one blue left open, and I take a big hit to the face for it. Given the situation, it’s not like I could have done anything differently – but it’s a mistake regardless of whether or not it mattered, and I make a note to chalk it up and move on. I untap and don’t have land #6, so I have to decide on which gamble I want to choose to try and stay alive for another turn.

Given that he didn’t miss a beat when I cast Wish the previous turn, my best guess was that the one card left in his hand isn’t countermagic. Most people out there really pause when you cast Wish, right or wrong; Scott didn’t, not even for a moment. Things are desperate and I’m right up against the wall, so my gamble is to cast the Reprisal at the Wurm. If it resolves, I can cast out a Gray Angel and try to pull things back under control.

Unfortunately, Scott is indeed holding a Logic, and he completely suckered me.

I don’t think enough people get the props they deserve for good plays like this, so please allow me to take a moment to really tip my virtual hat to Mr. Demmon on this one; it turned out that I was dead regardless, but that’s not the point here. I had to choose my gamble and I did so based on my read of his hand, and he just completely outplayed me on that front. It would have been easy to look back on this match and complain about how lucky his early draws were – but when it came down to it he was the better player, too. Trust me, there’s always more to be learned in this game.

Round 4: FutureTog

At this point I lose my notes (as well as my umbrella), so I’m going a bit more from memory than earlier rounds, and I also can’t give you all my remaining opponent’s names. Apologies to anyone seeking fame who now must go nameless!

Going into this event, the conventional wisdom seems to be that Tog is a very bad matchup for Wake – but I’m not sure how much I buy that. First, you have an awful lot of Big Threat cards that they really want to stop, including Wake, Mirari, Compulsion, and sometimes even just Wish. Additionally, Wake normally has more land and the very strong Krosan Verge to accelerate more quickly into the”cast threat+counter” scenarios. That’s a lot to cover, and many current ‘Tog builds have had to significantly up their anti-creature and/or lose their Wish versatility all together. The result is that their only true threat is one or two Upheavals, and much of their countermagic will be taxed by your threats, allowing you to choose your battles with your own countermagic.

My experience with this matchup has been that I feel like I have a pretty significant advantage game 1. It’s also often a long game 1, and if they don’t concede when the writing is on the wall it’s not unlikely that they won’t even have time for game 2. If they are willing to concede to save time, it’s a better matchup for them, as Duress in the board is a big help… But again, the burden is on them to prove your deck wrong, and that’s harder than you might think when you have so much card drawing as well as so many high impact cards. Add in two Seedtimes to the mix, as well as the fact that you can tap out basically at will until they have six mana, whereas they can’t afford to tap out against you anywhere near as fearlessly. Put more shortly, I really like my game 1, and I think game 2 is not as bad as many have reported, particularly if you are more comfortable with Wake than they are with Tog.

So back to the match at hand. In this one, my opponent has some fairly mediocre draws and my deck jumps all over the opportunity. Things start badly for him right off the bat when I win the roll and get to plop out a Compulsion on turn 2 without seeing an opposing Force Spike. He plays a second land of his own but doesn’t have a Compulsion to match, and at this point it’s almost safe to say that the game has already ended.

However, it’s even worse than I thought for my unfortunate opponent, as he gets stuck at three land and I’m able to drop out an (upside-down) Angel with counter backup. He doesn’t fire anything at her, though, and soon she’s dropping his life in four-point chunks while putting me farther and farther out of Tog range. He makes a valiant effort at it a few turns later once his mana has decided to show up, trying to cast Future Sight and then switching to Upheaval, but I have three Memory Lapses to seal the deal.

Game 2 I bring in Angel #4, both Seedtimes, the fourth Compulsion (people are crazy for not having this available!) and the Circular Logic. Out go all three Peaces and two Wraths. With this plan, the idea is to get all the good stuff into the main, and use the Wishes to either bait the opponent at end of turn (people really seem to counter these a lot more than I expect) or set up Opportunity. He brings in the standard Duress package, but I’m not sure if anything else comes in. It did look like he just brought in four cards or so.

This one goes badly for him as well, as he never draws any of those Duresses. That means he’s basically playing the same deck I feel so good against game 1, but now I have all these new goodies to go after him with. Since he went first I can’t go for turn 2 Compulsion, but with a threat-heavy hand I instead go for it on turn 4 with Lapse backup. I have enough threats that I’m hoping I can either test spell him to death or force him to start casting his 4cc card drawing before his defenses are all the way up. The gamble works, as he counters the Compulsion but I’m able to Lapse the counter. He has to tap mostly out next turn to cast a Concentrate, and I’m now firmly in the driver’s seat.

This game goes longer than the last, but Compulsion advantage means I get to have too much influence, all but guaranteeing superior mana and a denser package of threats. In this scenario, my plan is to allow him card drawing but do my best to prevent Upheaval while setting up my own”Big Turn.” It happens a few minutes later, where I am able to wait for him to cast another Concentrate on his turn, and cast a Wish that I don’t really want – which he counters, setting up a fight on my turn for Mirari. It resolves after a lot of blue mana is accessed by both players, after which I am able to drop a green land and cast an unopposed Seedtime. Other turns follow this one, but it’s essentially over at this point except for the formalities. He never does see a single Duress, and I can’t blame him for being frustrated by that.

Round 5: Nathan Pattie – R/G Beatdown

This match turns out to be a savage beating delivered by yet another highly amiable assassin. He leads with turn 1 Lizard, turn 2 Mongrel, and then just hoses me down with a stream of Violent Eruptions. My deck tries its best, but I haven’t seen any life gain yet and there’s just no way to keep up with the flood of burn pointed at my face.

In game 2, I board in the usual suspects against R/G by adding two Chastises, a Peace, and the fourth Angel, removing two Deep Analysis, a Counterspell, and a Mirari. That plan leaves three Compulsions and two Deep Analysis as card drawing and allows you to keep all your Wishes for recurring Peace or getting Opportunity once the smoke has cleared. The smoke never does clear in this game, however, as he gets the same opening as last game, but this time I have double mulliganed.

It’s a heartbreaking way to go, and actually gets exacerbated a bit by a real moment of hope: He’s stuck on three red land and a forest and swinging with a Mongrel, which I am able to Wrath away. I then draw into two Chastises and suddenly I’m feeling like I’m right back in this thing. Unfortunately, my opponent has no second green and can’t cast the Phantom Centaur that turns out to be in his hand; instead, he points three consecutive Violent Eruptions at my face. At five life and facing a nearly-active Barbarian Ring, I tap out for a face-up Angel and cross my fingers. He untaps and points a Volcanic Hammer at me, which gets him threshold and lets him sac his Ring for the final two.

That’s an awful lot of burn over two very short games… But it happens. I take this loss a bit better than normal, and it’s encouraging to think that I’m (slowly) getting where I want to be when it comes to that kind of thing. Pattie went on to do quite well, and I believe he was at the top tables (along with the U/G player who beat me) for much of the event.

However, because we had gone to ten rounds of Swiss for over five hundred people, it meant that some 8-2s could possibly make it to the coveted Top 8 invitation slots. It had also been announced that the Top 52 were getting at least a half box each in prizes, with a full box going down to something like 20th place. Combine all that with the possibility of trying to qualify for the tour on ratings down the road, and this event was for from over for me. Despite some bad beats, I still had a lot of confidence in both the deck and the deck choice, and with an outside shot at Top 8 still on the line it was time square my shoulders and settle in for the long haul to 5-0 and contention.

To be continued!

Scott Johns

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